ACT: 50 Years and Looking Forward
In 1971, a new program debuted at the Cathedral with a mission to provide the young people of Morningside Heights with a safe haven to learn, play, and grow. Two teachers from the Cathedral School, Shelda Taylor and Todd Bowen, saw a growing need for affordable and educational day camps in New York City and decided to allow enrollment from children outside of the Cathedral School for the first time. This program, called ACT (which at the time stood for Athletics, Creativity, and Trips) provided a unique and diverse learning environment for children from all economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Now in its 50th year, ACT (which today stands for Advancing the Community of Tomorrow) has grown into a core program at the Cathedral and in the Morningside Heights and Harlem communities.
It is hard to find someone in the neighborhood who does not have a personal connection to ACT. For many, it has become a generational rite to attend as a youngster and then enroll their own children in the same program years later. ACT’s goal is to build meaningful, long-lasting relationships with the families of the Cathedral’s extended community. The key to accomplishing this is to recognize young people as unique individuals with a wide variety of developmental and enrichment needs and to evolve constantly to meet those changing needs. Known for its caring, highly trained leaders and educators, ACT promises a safe space for toddlers to teens from many faiths, cultures, and economic backgrounds.
Over the decades, ACT has been known by a few different names. In the 1970s, the demand for accessible day camps was booming. Parents of all backgrounds needed creative, active, and educational summer and afterschool programs for their c
hildren and the ACT founders rose to meet that challenge. Taylor and Bowen used what was available to them—the Cathedral School faculty, students, and grounds—to develop their founding curriculum. Teachers and staff offered their skills and interests as activities for the campers: a Latin teacher taught arts and crafts; a third-grade teacher taught folk dancing. The original ACT acronym, “Athletics, Creativity, and Trips,” represented the breadth of activities offered in this innovative program and signified its newness.
A few years into the program, ACT underwent its first name change and adopted the title “Adults and Children in Trust.” This name reflected ACT’s core value of employing compassionate and intelligent adults committed to empowering the young students of the Cathedral’s extended community. This name also spoke to the sense of tradition that had begun to develop within the families of the ACT community and remains to this day. ACT alumni frequently get involved with the camp again as adults—either returning as volunteers and leaders or with their own children. Parents and alumni are central to the growth of the program, contributing ideas and feedback that ensure ACT is always evolving. Adults who get involved with ACT tend to stick around for a while—most notably José V. Torres, who dedicated 45 years of work to ACT (30 of those years spent as executive director.) Torres and his wife Nancy, who met while working at ACT, revolutionized the program and ensured all staff and faculty were supported and well-adjusted. They recognized that the key to caring for children is to employ caring adults. Our current ACT director (and all-around superstar) Marie Del Tejo is following in that tradition, having already accomplished over 30 years of commitment to ACT’s mission. She is known for her individualized connections with our ACT families and can be seen representing ACT and the Cathedral at community events throughout the year. The adults of ACT are largely responsible for its vibrancy and dynamism, hence the first name change.
In 2018, ACT arrived at its current name: Advancing the Community of Tomorrow. Over the years, the ACT community has evolved to see summer camp and afterschool programs as more than just a place to stay active and socialize outside of school. These programs are critical points for a child’s mental development and enrichment, and it is the responsibility of our trusted staff to ensure each camper and student receives safe and nurturing care. Our current ACT programs equip students with individualized homework help and social-emotional learning, in addition to awesome extracurriculars like music, games, natural science lessons, and talent shows. ACT leaders promote social skills, mental health, and cognitive development as much as they do physical health, guided learning, and exercise. ACT aims to help students and campers become the best versions of themselves, and our newest acronym best describes that mission.
These name changes reflect ACT’s willingness and ability to adapt to the ever-changing needs of our local communities. No greater adaptation has been made in our five-decade history than in the summer of 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended on New York City, the need for affordable summer camp and afterschool programs was greater than ever. We knew we could not halt these irreplaceable services as our community parents worked hard to provide for their families. So, ACT reimagined its model and took all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of our campers, volunteers, and staff. ACT transitioned to a fully digital mode of summer camp, providing unique virtual activities, education, and entertainment to our campers every single day. Once it was safe, ACT began to offer on-site, outdoor programs like soccer, musical theater, and mini golf in addition to our virtual curriculum. Teachers and counselors also made weekly individualized calls to our families to check in and offer additional support wherever needed. By fall 2020, we were able to safely return to our traditional, fully in-person model thanks to the hard work and commitment from our dedicated staff. This difficult period has inspired us to look ahead to the next chapter of ACT and imagine new ways we can support our community during challenging times.
Longtime subscribers to the Episcopal New Yorker may recall our 40th Anniversary article written for the Summer 2011 issue, in which we declared our goals for the future of ACT. A true time capsule of life in 2011, we announced plans to develop a Facebook page and our hopes to digitally connect ACT alumni with each other and with younger attendees. So much has changed in the last decade regarding how we communicate and stay in touch with one another, that this goal now seems particularly humble. Across ACT’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages, hundreds of parents, alumni, and leaders share photos and memories with one another to stay engaged with the community as it continues to grow.
Now, at this pivotal half-century mark, our goals for the next chapter of ACT are a little different. We have spent many years organizing and connecting our vibrant alumni community, and now we are turning our focus towards nurturing the next generation of campers. A core tenet of ACT’s mission is that financial standing should never be an obstacle between a child and a safe learning environment away from home. For 50 years, ACT has offered financial aid and scholarships to families in need of assistance. We know just how big of a difference ACT’s unique environment, focused programming, talented staff, and diverse student body can make in the lives of parents and children. That’s why, in this 50th year of ACT, we have launched a tuition fund to further support families in our community who may have difficulty enrolling their children in ACT. Thanks to the generosity of our community members, this tuition fund will cover the cost of Summer Camp or Preschool enrollment for dozens of children. With a goal of $50,000, we would greatly appreciate support from the kind readers of the Episcopal New Yorker. To contribute to this wonderful cause, visit stjohndivine.org/donate or text “SJDACT” to 50155.
Fifty weeks out of the year for the last 50 years, ACT has provided excellent education and entertainment to the young people of Morningside Heights. We can’t wait to see what the next 50 years hold.